Rio de Janeiro: India's stuttering campaign in the Olympic Games got a major boost due to the excellent show put on by woman steeplechaser Lalita Babar, who opened a new chapter by becoming the first female track athlete to qualify for a final at the Games in 32 years.
The Maharashtra woman would strive to become the first-ever medalist from the country in athletics when she competes in the 15-strong final on Independence Day tomorrow in the race by overcoming hurdles, physical as well as mental.
Today, on the ninth day of competitions in this Brazilian city, the country's hopes of opening the medal chest rest on diminutive gymnast Dipa Karmakar and mixed doubles tennis duo of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna.
The Tripura girl Dipa, who has already created a wave by being the first Indian to qualify for a final in the gravity-defying sport, would step into the gymnastics arena to see whether she can reach an altogether different plane by winning the country's first-ever medal in this visually appealing discipline.
Dipa, however, will have to compete with the likes of the all-round apparatus champion and the darling of the Games, the pint-sized American Simon Biles.
In tennis, the duo of Sania and Bopanna , who lost to the American pair of Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram last night, will face the Czech pair of Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradecka in the bronze play-off.
Since their match is set to commence much before Dipa's vault final, they have a golden chance to open the country's medal chest in what has so far been a fruitless campaign by the 100-plus contingent.
Yesterday on day eight, India were left to rue a missed opportunity when Sania and Bopanna lost to the USA duo in three sets.
A historic Olympic silver medal was well within reach before they suffered a sudden mid-match slump and frittered away an advantageous position to lose the clash from a position of strength to the American duo.
After dominating the first set, Sania and Bopanna lost 6-2 2-6 3-10 to the Americans.
The Indians were cruising at one stage but once Sania's service was broken in the fourth game of the second set, the tide turned in the favour of the Americans.
Leander Paes remains the only player to win a tennis medal in India's Olympic history.
"We have to try and recover as quick as possible, mentally and physically. Probably more mentally. We have to go back, try and get some sleep, put some food in our body and recover for tomorrow," Sania said after the defeat.
Sania and Bopanna stumbled after Lalita revived India's fortunes in the track and field event by becoming the first woman in more than three decades to enter the final of a track event when she shattered the national mark to reach the 3000M steeplechase medal round.
Lalita, hailing from Satara district of Maharashtra, qualified for the women's 3000m steeplechase final after finishing fourth in the qualifying heat 2 with a new national record of 9 minutes, 19.76 seconds while the holder of that mark, compatriot Sudha Singh, was eliminated after a poor run in heat 3.
The 27-year-old Lalita, who had won the bronze medal in the event in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago, emulated 'Payyoli Express' P T Usha by entering the final.
Usha, who runs a running academy now, was the first Indian woman to achieve the distinction when she made the final of the women's 400m hurdles in 1984 at Los Angeles before missing the bronze by a fraction of a second.
Lalita, in fact, finished with the seventh-best time in the heats by clipping nearly seven seconds off the existing national mark standing in the name of Sudha (9:26.55), clocked in Shanghai in May.
After qualifying for the final, an elated Lalita said that she was looking to give her best in the final on the Independence day.
"Now all the focus for the final on the Independence Day," said Lalita.
However, her training partner Sudha fell by the wayside and exited. Sudha performed far below her best to finish a distant 9th in heat 3 with a poor time of 9:43.29, which gave her the 30th spot out of 52 in the qualifiers.
The third Indian athlete in fray, Nirmala Sheoran, looked totally out of depth in the women's 400m preliminaries in which she finished a distant 35th overall after ending up sixth out of seven runners in heat 1 in 53.03 seconds.
Also making early exits were shooter Gurpreet Singh, who failed to qualify for the men's 25m rapid fire pistol final after finishing seventh in the qualifications with 581, and also Mairaj Ahmad Khan, who bowed out by finishing ninth after losing in a shoot-off in men's skeet.
The top six qualified for the summit contest in the both shooting events.
Gurpreet, who was placed 10th at the end of first qualifying phase with 289 points, collected a total of 292 points for a total of 581, including 24x, to miss the finals by a whisker.
His one bad round of 90 on day one of the two-day event cost him a place in the final.
After Mairaj was tied with four other shooters, the last two semifinals spots were shoot-offs where the Indian, who was 10th overnight, dropped to ninth.
In women's hockey, India were thrashed by Argentina 0-5, their fourth successive loss in five matches in Pool B. They are out of the fray.
In rowing, Dattu Baban Bhokanal finished 15th overall in men's single sculls after coming in first in his final ranking race, clocking 6:54.96.
In badminton, already out of medal contention, women's doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa suffered their third successive loss in their final Group A match against Thailand's Supajirakul Puttita and Taerattanachai Sapsiree and ended their run on a dismal note.
Playing their second Olympics after the London Games, Jwala and Ashwini lost 17-21 15-21 to finish their outing with a hat-trick of defeats.
However, Indian men's doubles pair of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy ended their campaign on a positive note by grabbing first success in three matches after defeating Japan's Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa in straight games.
Manu and Sumeeth, who had earlier lost both their doubles matches in group D, posted a 23-21 21-11 win.
Golfers SSP Chawrasia and Anirban Lahiri were placed tied 22nd and joint 57th after posting two-under 69 and four-over 75 respectively in the third round and would resume their campaign today in the fourth and final day of the stroke-play event.